By Marianne Harlan
NORTH AUGUSTA, SC—In 1998, God called his people of Grace United Methodist Church to tell the story of the birth of his son by presenting a live nativity.
We answered that call and got to work building the village of Bethlehem, making costumes, gathering props and much more. After an entire year of preparation, our first presentation of “Return to Bethlehem” was held in 1999 with 5,154 visitors from the community coming to witness the events leading to the birth of Christ.
Fast forward to 2021, where we just wrapped up our 14th year of offering the production with a cumulative total of 56,489 visitors attending.
We have a cast of more than 300 who portray the story as our visitors walk through scenes. A costumed guide assumes a character, telling their life-changing story of the night of Jesus’s birth.
The first stop begins with the angel Gabriel sharing the news with Mary that she is with child. This scene is followed by Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Then we stop at Herod’s Court, where Herod shouts his anger at his chief priests about the news that a baby has been born who will be king.
Next, the group is transported back in time 2,000 years ago to the town of Bethlehem: a busy village of shops and cottages. The sights, sounds and smells of the village come to life with live animals, authentic music, costumes and artisans at work. Guests are escorted through the village with the final stop at the nativity complete with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds and live animals. Scripture readings are provided to visitors on hanging scrolls along the way with the final reading at the nativity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The premise behind the pageant is that God’s love to us is freely given, so as a way of mirroring that love, we accept no donations from our visitors. This gift of love to our community is made possible solely by generous financial donations and untold hours of service from our church family.
At Grace UMC, we’re blessed that God called on us to tell his story and we plan to continue to do so for years to come.
Harlan is director of “Return to Bethlehem” and church administrator.